Main Engine Cut Off

NASA Looking to Buy Two More Soyuz Seats, Even Though They Always Say It’s Too Late to Do That

Chris Bergin, for NASASpaceflight:

“NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.”

The two seats in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 seem to be in reference to the Soyuz MS-15 and MS-16 flights.  Soyuz MS-15 currently has its third seat occupied by a paying spaceflight participant – who will now likely be bumped to accommodate a permanent US Station crewmember – and Soyuz MS-16 is a schedule two-person flight with a vacant third seat available.

This is obviously a bad look for NASA, Boeing, SpaceX, and Congress, but it’s smart to have Soyuz overlap with the early Commercial Crew flights, just in case.

However, let’s not forget the constant fearmongering from Bill Gerstenmaier and other NASA officials about how it’s too late to buy more Soyuz seats. It comes up every time they are in front of Congress (like January 2018 in the House), or are in similarly-high-stakes situations (like August 2018 right before crew assignments).

They say it takes 3 years to build a Soyuz so it’s too late to get on the list. Marcia Smith has a great note on this from that August incident:

An obvious answer to the question of how to ensure uninterrupted U.S. crew access to ISS is to buy more Soyuz seats from Russia. NASA officials insist, however, that it is too late to negotiate a new contract because it takes three years to build a Soyuz.

However, Russia will still be building Soyuz spacecraft for its own ISS crew members. Each Soyuz can accommodate three people. A Russian commander occupies one seat and another Russian cosmonaut is usually in the second, leaving the third seat open. Sometimes Russia uses the third seat for another of its own cosmonauts, but before NASA began purchasing the seats Russia also used them for tourists who reportedly paid about $25 million to spend a week on ISS. Russia is already making a seat available to others now that the contract with NASA is expiring. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will fly its first astronaut to ISS on a Soyuz in April 2019.

It’s an out-and-out, bold-faced, horseshit lie. No one should ever be fooled by these politically-minded statements ever again, and no one should report on Soyuz seat purchases without mentioning that.

Air Force Research Lab Small Sat Hitching a Ride to GEO

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Spaceflight, the Seattle-based company that brokers rideshare launch services, confirmed in a Feb. 11 statement that it will be flying the S5 satellite for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 launch of the PSN-6, or Nusantara Satu, communications satellite built by Space Systems Loral, a division of Maxar Technologies, for Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara.

The S5 satellite will be attached not to the rocket’s upper stage or payload adapter but instead to the Nusantara Satu satellite itself, Spaceflight explained in its statement. “Before the telecommunications satellite reaches its final GEO position, it will separate the S5 spacecraft which will then turn on and start its mission,” Spaceflight said.

This is a pretty unique situation—a satellite for the Air Force Research Lab riding on a commercial Indonesian satellite all the way to (near) geostationary orbit.

SpaceX Protests Lucy Launch Contract

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

The protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 11, is regarding a NASA procurement formally known as RLSP-35. That contract is for the launch of the Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter, awarded by NASA to ULA Jan. 31 at a total cost to the agency of $148.3 million.

The GAO documents did not disclose additional information about the protest, other than the office has until May 22 to render a decision. NASA said that, as a result of the protest, it’s halted work on the ULA contract.

It’ll be endlessly interesting to see how this turns out, but now is precisely the right time for SpaceX to protest an award like this. They’re fresh off their Category 3 certification from the NASA Launch Services Program, they’re on a hell of a roll, and ULA has had quite a few scrubs and some long delays of late.

T+110: Starship, New Glenn, and RS1 Updates

ABL Space Systems announced some changes to RS1, Blue Origin broke ground in Huntsville and signed a new customer, and SpaceX has been making steady progress on Starship.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous—and 218 other supporters on Patreon.

California Space Mafia Needles the Air Force

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This shit is as annoying as when the Alabama Space Mafia does the same sort of thing.

Moments like these reinforce the natural way of things: one day SpaceX will be the entrenched player angling to keep the new entrants out.

And it’s not Vulcan or Omega that SpaceX is worried about.

Thanks to January Patrons

Very special thanks to the 256 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of January. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, so your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 35 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

If you want to get in on some of those perks, or if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

T+109: Q&A

We cover a lot of ground in this round of questions, nearly all focused on the future—ISS crew scheduling, ISS facilities, ISRO human spaceflight, science missions, and launch vehicles.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous—and 221 other supporters on Patreon.

ABL Space Systems Increases Payload, Cuts Price, Drops Ursa Major

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

ABL Space Systems plans to announce Feb. 1 that it is offering an upgraded version of the RS1 rocket at a price of $12 million a launch, down from an earlier price of $17 million. The vehicle’s performance has been increased from 900 to 1,200 kilograms to low Earth orbit.


Another aspect was a decision to bring engine production in-house. ABL Space Systems originally planned to purchase engines from Ursa Major Technologies, an engine developer, for the RS1. Now, the company is developing its own engines, E1 and E2, for the rocket’s first and second stages, respectively.

Once again, the rocket equivalent of Alan Kay’s theorem: people who are really serious about launch services should make their own engines.

I’m very curious to see where Ursa Major goes from here. Their only customer we know of publicly is Generation Orbit, and I don’t quite know how extensive their plans are currently. Unless either or both of these companies have something they’ve yet to unveil, this might be it for Ursa Major.

Maxar/SSL Cancels DARPA RSGS Satellite Servicing Agreement

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Maxar said it backed out the servicer program, which would have been able to refuel and repair satellites in space, in order to “focus its resources on ensuring optimal returns when weighed against other capital priorities, such as WorldView Legion.”

WorldView Legion is a constellation of Earth observation satellites SSL is building for Maxar’s DigitalGlobe division. Three weeks ago, DigitalGlobe reported that its newest satellite, WorldView-4, failed in orbit, making replacement satellites more urgent.

There’s a really great follow-up piece by Sandra Erwin that goes into detail on the cost sharing agreement behind RSGS, and it sheds light on why Maxar—who is having a hell of a few months—canceled the program.

They’re in damage control mode, and need to cut a business line that will not be profitable for a few years. I can’t imagine having the weight of that program helps a potential sale of SSL, either, as we’ve heard rumored for weeks.

The telling sign here will be whether DARPA pursues a continuation of RSGS with Northrop Grumman, who lost out on the original round of agreements. Northrop Grumman may feel confident enough in their Mission Extension Vehicles and Pods that they don’t need the additional complexity of RSGS, or they may feel like the robotic arm would be a valuable boost to their work.